Notes on “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision’


“Well, the dialectic of belief and vision is the path I have to go down now.”  ––Late Notebooks, 1:73

 Joe Adamson’s reference earlier today to “The Dialectic of Vision and Belief” reminded me of some notes I made for my students several years back.  Page references are to the essay as reprinted in Myth and Metaphor, 93–107.  The students were undergraduates, so here and there I provided a bit of background on Hegel, Derrida, McLuhan, et al.

 1.  Frye calls his title “somewhat forbidding.”  We might consider first what dialectic means.  The word comes from the Greek dialektos, meaning dialogue or debate.  In Plato, dialectic is the science or discipline of drawing rigorous distinctions.  In the Middle Ages dialectic was treated in partnership with logic as being one of the trivium in the medieval education system, the other two being grammar and rhetoric.  The word dialogue also comes from the Greek root, and this seems to be the sense in which Frye is using the word.  Plato wrote his earlier works in dialogue form, using what we now call the Socratic method, which is a way of doing philosophy through discussion between two or more parties.  Hegel was the preeminent modern philosopher for Frye (he makes an appearance in this essay on p. 98), and there might be a touch of the Hegelian sense of dialectic in Frye’s title.  For Hegel, dialectic refers to the process of overcoming the contradiction between thesis and antithesis by means of a synthesis.  So in this essay Frye perhaps means to suggest that something might emerge from the opposition between “belief” and “vision.”

The dialectical method involves the notion that movement, or process, or progress is the result of the conflict of opposites. Traditionally, this dimension of Hegel’s thought has been analyzed in terms of the categories of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.  Although Hegel tended to avoid these terms, they are helpful in understanding his concept of the dialectic.  The thesis, then, might be an idea or a historical movement.  Such an idea or movement contains within itself incompleteness that gives rise to opposition, or an antithesis, a conflicting idea or movement. As a result of the conflict a third point of view arises, a synthesis, which overcomes the conflict by reconciling at a higher level the truth contained in both the thesis and antithesis.  This synthesis becomes a new thesis that generates another antithesis, giving rise to a new synthesis, and in such a fashion the process of intellectual or historical development is continually generated.  Hegel thought that Absolute Spirit itself (which is to say, the sum total of reality) develops in this dialectical fashion toward an ultimate end or goal.  For Hegel, therefore, reality is understood as the Absolute unfolding dialectically in a process of self-development.  As the Absolute undergoes this development, it manifests itself both in nature and in human history. Nature is Absolute Thought or Being objectifying itself in material form.  Finite minds and human history are the process of the Absolute manifesting itself in that which is most kin to itself, namely, spirit or consciousness. In The Phenomenology of Mind Hegel traced the stages of this manifestation from the simplest level of consciousness, through self-consciousness, to the advent of reason.

 2.  Notice Frye’s rhetorical stance at the beginning.  There’s the opening apology.  There’s the disclaimer that he’s got a corner on truth: I’m speaking of only one model, he says in effect: there are other legitimate models.  In par. 2 Frye says that he simply wants to make a “few suggestions.”  To paraphrase: I make no grandiose claims here: others have written whole books about the issue (Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s Faith and Belief [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979]: I think I understand the distinction Smith has made: what I’m going to say is really quite crude.  This is Frye assuming the role of what he called the eiron in Anatomy of Criticism, the self-deprecating character, the one who draws attention away from himself.  Or we might see it as a Socratic gambit: here’s a 73-year-old man who is claiming in effect that he doesn’t know anything much.

 3.  Back to paragraph one: Frye’s announced topic: What is the relation of the imagination, and our response to literature, to study of religion and the Bible?

 4.  Top of p. 94, first line.  Frye announces his “crude form” of the relation of faith and belief at the beginning: belief = state of mind; faith = expression of it in action.  At first blush, this doesn’t seem to be particularly extraordinary, and it’s easy enough for us nod approvingly.  Still, the formulation may run counter to the more or less common understanding of faith.  That is, we would not be surprised if someone were to say, “My faith is an expression of what I believe.”  But Frye is rejecting the notion that faith is a matter of what goes on in our heads.  More about this later.

            What happened to vision?  Does Frye mean to equate vision and faith?  That is, we began with the dialectic of belief and vision, and now it seems to have become a dialectic of faith and belief.  Has Frye switched the terms on us here?  Well, yes, but hang on.

 5.  First par. on p. 94.  Here we encounter the typical Frgygian move, the establishing of a framework into which he can put the issue or question.  We’ve read enough of Frye already to understand the binary opposition he sets up.  In reading there are two processes involved, and they descend from or are based on the time/space opposition that is everywhere in Anatomy of Criticism and elsewhere:

            a.  linear narrative movement: temporal: ear: musical metaphors

            b.  act of attention: spatial: eye  (the Gestalt): conceptual space; architectural metaphors (structure)

            This is a version of the mythos and dianoia opposition: things move in time (we “listen” to the sequence) and things organize themselves in space (we “see” the structure or pattern).

 6.  Frye’s next move is to consider two “confused metaphors” about all this:

            a.  McLuhanism: book = linear process, but electronic media = simultaneous vision.  Frye doesn’t buy this, for the book has to be understood (experienced as dianoia or understood spatially) as well as read (experienced as mythos or in a linear way), and electronic media have a narrative (experienced in a linear way, as well as seen as a simultaneous pattern).  So the kind of either/or opposition one finds in McLuhan won’t work for Frye.

            [Marshall McLuhan, Frye’s colleague at the University of Toronto, is the great guru of contemporary communications theory, the person responsible for coining the expression “the medium is the message.”  To some degree, Frye and McLuhan, both of whom had international reputations, were rivals for attention.  Frye is always careful to attack, not McLuhan himself, but what he calls elsewhere McLuhanism, the perversions of McLuhan’s insights about the media by lesser communications people.  We get a version of that here, where Frye says that McLuhan had been “ground up in a public relations blender” (94–    5).]

            b.  Derrida: extreme emphasis on writing; writing is the speaker’s presence.  But prose depends on rhythm, and it is a written structure, not a speaker’s presence.

            Now this is pretty dense stuff.  A bit of background.  During the 1970s and 1980s Frye had been displaced from the center of critical attention by poststructuralism, of whom the high priest was Jacques Derrida, the French intellectual who has become known as the father of deconstruction.  Frye considered Derrida as a threat (you might glance at what I say about Derrida and deconstruction of pp. xv–xvi of the Introduction).

            What’s all this écriture business about anyway?  In Of Grammatology Derrida tries to upset the traditional notion that écriture (“writing”) is secondary, or, to put it in the opposite terms, that in our conventional ways of thinking about language, speech comes first, that it exists on a level above writing.  For Derrida both speech and writing are unstable: both lack what he calls a “presence” (that is, there’s nothing at the center of either on which one can ground a position).  There is no “metaphysics of presence,” as Derrida says.  There is no determinate meaning.  Speech for Derrida is already contaminated by writing, and writing (écriture) takes the place of speech as the norm of language.

            Well, Frye thinks Derrida is quite off base.  (He has already taken a swipe at contemporary critical theory on p. 93, calling it a “wasteland.”)  Frye wants to disabuse us of the notion that the important issue is not the speaker’s presence or absence.  This is just a conventional pretense.  The important thing for Frye is that there is structure in written discourse.  (Derrida would deny that there is structure in anything: show me a structure, he would say, and I’ll deconstruct it for you.)

 7.  Next move.  But what does structure mean as a metaphor?  It’s a confusion to say that to understand literature we must seek the destruction of the work.  This is another jab at deconstruction, which claims that we can’t ever really construct meanings from texts: all we can do is deconstruct the meanings.

            Frye makes a concession here.  He agrees that understanding never becomes definitive.  But he is unwilling to concede that structure is unimportant in reading literature: all literature has a structure.  Notice now the metaphor of incarnation on p. 96 (lower-case “i” but with a clear religious meaning).  All works, Frye says, have something about them of the paradox of incarnation: enclosing the infinite in a finite form.

 8.  Next a fairly enigmatic paragraph on metaphors of seeing and hearing again.  What’s the purpose of this paragraph about Zen and the Mass, etc.?  It’s an illustration of what Frye means by seeing a structure.  Such seeing is a part of our experience.  It’s particularly an aspect of ritual, where we literally see something: the elevated host, the ear of corn, the golden flower.  Frye’s aim seems to be (again, Frye is a bit difficult to follow here) that, as against deconstruction, we actually do experience structure when we read, and in ritual we have an analogy of this.

 9.  Now, we finally come to belief, and Frye’s discussion of belief is in the context of the different kinds of verbal structures, from fiction at one end to the descriptive prose of newspapers at the other.

 [Outline of the main themes from here on.]

 10.  No process of belief involved in reading literature: acceptance: suspension of disbelief.  Range of responses: newspaper: acceptance of what we read is continually involved: whether news stories are true is the issue.

 With newspaper, acceptance of words is accompanied by belief or disbelief.  With Bible, this doesn’t enter in: we accept the myth and metaphor: we postpone commitment until after linear stage is completed.

 11.  P. 98.  One’s lifestyle is a manifestation of one’s faith.  Faith must be powered by vision.  Faith = pursuing the for itself (Hegel) which is the burden brought into the world by consciousness.  Vision = pursuing the model world in itself.  Very abstract philosophical terms here that Frye takes from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, pp. 294 ff.  For Hegel, for-itself has to do with thought, with the self-consciousness that comes from our being post-Enlightenment people.  It’s limited.  It’s related to faith expressed in conceptual or Enlightenment terms.  On the other hand, in-itself is a matter of getting beyond Enlightenment rationality to something above and beyond historical self-consciousness.  It’s a matter of vision, or arriving at what Hegel calls Begriff (notion).  For-itself belongs to the world as it is.  In-itself belongs to the world as it might or should be.

 For itself: related to self-consciousness, actuality, human law, the external world of culture and civilization

 In itself: consciousness, possibility, faith, harmony, consciousness of the Notion (Begriff), the spiritual world

 12.  P. 99.  Hope = constructing the model world.  Can’t separate hope from vision.  Faith = the activity of realizing the model world suggested by hope.  Belief without vision = anxieties about secondary concerns.  Vision without belief = “bad faith” = contemplating the timeless in itself without looking at the historical for itself.

 13.  P. 101.  Apocalypse = getting beyond time and history.  Apocalypse = a vision of a body of imagery where all categories are identified with the body of Christ.  This can’t be grasped in doctrinal terms.

 14.  P. 102.  [Section break here, indicated by the spacing.]  Myth as distinguished from ideology.  Myth has to do with primary concerns = food, freedom of movement, sex, shelter.

 Secondary concerns = ideology

How to connect mythology to faith?  Bible provides a clue.

 15.  P. 104.  Eden = identity of the human and the natural

The Fall = the mythological (or imaginative) and the ideological begin to separate

 16.  P. 106.  The Apocalypse = total transformation of reality; not the millennium, because there’s no connection with history or the future.  Apocalypse is a metaphorical structure in which there’s no separation of subject and object.

 17.  P. 106.  Function of literature is to keep the metaphorical habit of thinking in identities alive.  This is a refrain that is sounded throughout Frye’s work.  There is always a certain anxiety underlying the idea; that is, there’s a danger that we might lose the habit of thinking metaphorically, and if this happens, we are, for Frye, doomed.

 18.  P. 107.  Imaginative identity or the metaphorical structure of the Bible can be extended back to recapture some of the existential force that the metaphor once suggested.

At next stage of imaginative identity, agape makes its appearance.

The divine initiative.

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2 thoughts on “Notes on “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision’

  1. Joe Adamson

    Thanks so much for this, Bob. Great summary–and it shows how useful such an exercise is, not just because it brings out all the more vividly Frye’s argument, but because it also shows his remarkable thinking process, the dialectic of his own thought.

  2. Clayton Chrusch

    Skimming through the essay, I came across this sentence which seems like a justification or at least a motivation of the totality of Frye’s work:

    “It is only mythology, I feel, that can really express the vision of hope, the hope that is focused on a more abundant life for us all, not the hope of finally refuting the arguments of Moslems or Marxists.”

    I think this is likely the sentiment Joe had in mind when he expressed frustration with my interest in logic and truth claims.

    I think we can all agree that we need to express visions of hope, and we also have to refute bad arguments. (If you disagree with me, I have some arguments you will have a hard time refuting.)

    One more note on logic, from the perspective of a former computer science student. Logic is not just about making and refuting arguments, but it is a branch of mathematics that is beautiful and awe-inspiring and full of untapped possibilities. The logicians I have encountered in my computer science education are brilliant and exuberantly imaginative people. Knowing these people, I know that logic can do more for us than it is doing now because it has not nearly been exhausted.

    The fact that people openly despise myth and happily worship reason doesn’t mean that people are any more rational than they are imaginative. The war goes on on both fronts.


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